Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Library >  Eelam > Adrian Wijemanne: War and Peace in Post Colonial Ceylon 1948 -1991


  • * War and Peace in Post-Colonial Ceylon 1948-1991[see also Adrian Wijemanne - Selected Writings]

    From the Dedication

    my wife

    whose relentless opposition to this entire project and
    uncompromising rejection of every salient point herein
    have dispelled any lingering doubt as to the need, the
    urgent need, for this book.


    From the Preface

    Ceylon? Why Ceylon and not Sri Lanka? Is it not regressive to hark back to a name redolent of colonial subjugation, anglicisation and cultural arrogance? It is. But no more so than the declared war-aim of the government of Sri Lanka which is the preservation of the "unitary state". The "unitary state" is an ambiguous phrase used at times in a geographical sense to mean one single state encompasssing the whole island and, at other times in a constitutional sense to mean a non-federal state with one supreme central government, whatever gradations of local government there may be. A unitary state in the former, territorial sense was established on the island on an enduring basis only under British colonial rule and under the name Ceylon. So that name helps take us to the heart of the present discord. In the war now being waged on the island one side aims to preserve the territorial integrity of that colonial construction, and the other side, to break it into two.

    Prior to the establishment of the unitary state of Ceylon by the British, a variety of kingdoms co-existed side by side on the island. In both ancient and medieval periods there were brief episodes of a single kingdom under a Sinhala monarch covering the whole island but they were of short duration, lasting only for a part of that monarch's reign. No entities that even remotely resembled "states" in the current sense were then known. And multiplicity rather than unity was the norm. It was so even under Portuguese and Dutch colonial rule. The unitary state in both its geographical and constitutional senses is a purely British invention. It was established to satisfy colonial administrative convenience and made no pretence of being in response to the wishes, express or implied, of the governed. The British were well aware that two wholly disparate (and in the past frequently antagonistic) races were thus yoked together under their rule but administrative convenience was all that mattered.

    The pattern of colonial rule in this respect was the same in Britain's other Asian colonies � India, Burma and the Malay peninsula. In all of them the impossibility of maintaining a "unitary state" became evident either at the point of decolonisation or soon thereafter. India split up immediately into India and Pakistan; shortly after independence the Malay peninsula divided into Ma.- laysia, Singapore and Brunei; in Burma the tribal areas right round the border shook off Burmese rule and are still fighting for their independence. All these break-ups corresponded to the wishes of the people concerned � and the fissiparous trend continues. Pakistan divided into two � Bangladesh and Pakistan. India, despite its federal constitution, is threatened by several secessionist movements � in Jammu and Kashmir, in Assam, in the Punjab and in the tribal areas on the eastern border. And the tremors are being felt even in larger states like Tamilnadu.

    Ceylon was the exception, initially, to this general trend. There was one vital reason for this. Ceylon gained its independence in 1948 not as a result of a people's mass movement (which was Gandhi's crucial contribution to the Indian independence movement) but by negotiation between the British establishment and a thoroughly anglicised local middle class elite comprising both Sinhala and Tamil professionals. It was on them that the imperial power devolved. It was their hope to step into the shoes of the departing British and run the country in the same benevolent style with the trappings of parliamentary government well under their paternalistic control. They counted without the hydra-headed monster of ethnic sub-nationalism which was soon to show how "the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley"

    From Chapter 1 on The Psychology of Nationalism

    The transition from a sense of community to a feeling of nationhood follows no set pattern. Nor is there any rule as to the sector of society from which the impetus towards nationhood emerges. The example of neighbouring peoples, the rising tide of prosperity and expectations, the ambition of a charismatic leader, alleged, perceived or real oppression � any of these may play a part and this is by no means an exhaustive list. While any of them or many in combination may serve as the catalyst, the basic material required for combustion is a common ethnic composition, a common language and culture, a common religion and the occupation of a contiguous land mass over a historical span of time.

    The intensity of nationalistic feelings may vary from time to time according to changing circumstances. When an imperial hegemony is imposed, invariably by force of arms, national feelings run high. As imperial rule becomes settled, national consciousness lies low and dormant but unextinguished. As the grip of empire begins to weaken, rumblings of national independence, a reversion to indigenous cultures begin to manifest themselves.

    And the manner in which imperial rule ends, influences the course and intensity of nationalism. Where there is a mass movement for independence �the sort of movement that Gandhi led against British rule in India � the tide of nationalism runs very high indeed. There is invariably a renaissance of indigenous culture, a rejection of things and notions foreign and a conscious effort to recreate an idiosyncratic image. There is a great emotional surge; the adrenalin of independence revitalises society. It unleashes forces of human commitment and sacrifice that have overpowered academic doctrines and revolutionary ideologies. It is a force capable of destroying old orders and constructing new ones. And, historically, far from being a force that is spent it may only just be gathering momentum.

    When Ceylon achieved its independence in 1948, however, a full-blown nationalistic mass uprising was absent. There was no parallel to the situation in neighbouring India which had achieved its goal just half a year earlier. Freedom came easily by friendly negotiation. There was little or no controversy over preservation of British investments, the continuance of British naval facilities and the adoption of British forms of parliamentary government including the first-past-the-post electoral system. The local elite who had settled the terms with the British came to power. And on an apparent sea of tranquillity sail was set to the fair winds of measured progress and steady "development". To the superficial observer the portents for success looked more promising than in most other colonies that the British were leaving.

    The former colony of Ceylon became the new state of Ceylon. Indeed, the name lasted for the first 24 years of independence �that is more than half the period up to the time of the writing of this book. Nor was there any widespread demand for its change.

    But was the new state a "nation-state"? Was there a "Ceylonese" nation on which it was grounded? The ambiguity and qualifications that must attach to any true answer to this question presaged the shoals that lay in the future. The middle class, both Sinhala and Tamil, perhaps 10 per cent of the population then, did feel they were "Ceylonese" but without any loss, of their ethnic identity as Sinhala or Tamil.

    Indeed, this writer, on his first trip abroad on government business in 1958, claimed he was a "Ceylonese" and so did his Tamil colleague who accompanied him. In the next, much larger stratum of the population � the lower middle class which was not wholly English-speaking � the Ceylonese identity, if it existed at all, was very weak indeed, barely vestigial. And for the vast majority of the population, of both races, the concept of a "Ceylonese" nationality was simply non-existent and unknown. Thus, to consider the new state of Ceylon a "nation-state" would be an exercise in optimism rather than reality. Ceylon was, and Sri Lanka continued to be, the former colonial contraption which in British times had been held together by force of British arms. With the disappearance of that "glue", things began to come unstuck.

    Though a "Ceylonese" nation did not exist, nationalism was not absent. And from its very first manifestations, the divergence between the two races became apparent. Sinhala nationalism (which the Tamils were later to call "Sinhala chauvinism") arose from a Buddhist revival in the early years of this century and crystallised around the charismatic figure of Anagarika Dharmapala.

    The two movements were symbiotic and inextricable. And they found their home in the Sinhala lower middle class which had fared relatively badly under the British who favoured Tamils of the same social stratum for government jobs and other forms of preferment. This class had not been entirely culturally subverted by anglicisation as was the middle class and it was predominantly Buddhist. It arrived at the point of independence with an axe to grind against the Tamils. It looked to the Sinhala politicians, who had now come to power, to redress balance. It was a limited nationalism of a petit-bourgeois variety and it was based on a sense of self-interest that excluded the interests of the Tamils. It was ethnic nationalism, not the nationalism of a multi-ethnic unitary state.

    Equally, there was a national upsurge on the Tamil side as well. Just prior to independence, when the constitution of the new state to-be was being drafted by the Soulbury Commission which had been sent out by the British Government for the purpose, the Tamil Congress asked for 50:50 representation of the two races in the legislature on the ground that the Tamil people should have an equal status to the Sinhala people in the new state to be constituted from both these races, regardless of the weight of numbers.

    All Sinhala politicians and the whole mass of Sinhala people of all classes found this demand inexplicable and provocative because they failed to understand that the Tamil leaders regarded the new state as a composite entity made up of two equal races, irrespective of their size. The concept of rights irrespective of size is not one easy to comprehend even now when the world has become used to states of vastly different size acting as equals in the United Nations and other international fora.

    In 1946 this was completely incomprehensible to the whole Sinhala race and, regrettably, it seems to be so to this day. The point, however, is that from that early time the Tamil leaders projected a sense of Tamil nationalism which insisted on equal rights in every respect for the Tamil people (it was too early then to talk of a Tamil "nation") in the new state-to-be. On their side too it was an ethnic nationalism, not the nationalism of a multiethnic unitary state.

    The politicians who came to power in 1948 were drawn exclusively from the English-speaking, highly anglicized middle class of both races. Most of them were professional men, well-acquainted with each other and endowed with basically liberal instincts. They had been elected in September 1947 in the euphoria of impending independence and left to themselves were very unlikely to do anything to rock the boat. But left to themselves they were not. In a matter of months they were engulfed by the high tides of their respective nationalisms and they set a pattern, which was to last to the present day, of responding to that impetus rather than curbing it.

    Whatever little chance there may have been of a genuinely "Ceylonese" nationalism growing up in time was aborted almost at conception. The unitary state, freed from the strait-jacket of imperial order, became the battle-ground of competing nationalisms which convulse the country to this day.



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